Britain's American prisons


However, the private soldier was treated with gruesome brutality, as Allen described in his popular Narrative of 1779. Most American military prisoners were packed into improvised jails and prison ships to suffer and die in large numbers. Elias Boudinot was the American commissary general of prisoners during 1777 and 1778, when policies concerning the prisoners of war (POWs) were put into place; his British counterpart was the corrupt Joshua Loring, whose wife, Elizabeth Lloyd, was the famous mis­tress of General Howe. Other British commissaries of prisoners were men named David Sproat and James [?] Lennox.
Britain's New York prisons. Infamous British prisons in NewYork City were Van Cortlandt's Sugar House (north­west corner of Trinity churchyard), Rhinelander's (corner of William and Duane Streets), the Liberty Street Sugar House (Nos. 34 and 36 Liberty Street), and the Provost Jail. The latter had been constructed in the Fields in 1758 and was known as the New Jail. It was administered by the notorious William Cunningham. The Provost and Liberty jails, in that order, were the most dreaded by patriots. Other places in New York City were used as prisons: some of the Dissenter churches, the hospital, King's College (Columbia), and one or more other sugar houses.
British prison ships. The prison ships were probably more horrible than the land jails. Originally used for naval captives, they subsequently were filled with soldiers. The British started using them not only to solve their problems of space in New York City—particularly after the fire of September 1776—but because they promised to be more secure and more healthful than conventional jails. Both assumptions proved wrong: any prisoner who could swim could escape from a ship more easily than from a land jail; improper administration of the prison ships—overcrowd­ing, poor sanitation, inadequate food—turned them into death traps. Though again figures are only rough esti­mates, some seven thousand to ten thousand Americans died on these ships during the Revolution, the latter figure supported by the discovery in 1803 of thousands of skele­tons around the shores of Wallabout Bay.
Most notorious was the Jersey, a sixty-four-gun ship that had been dismantled in 1776 as unfit for service and that held one thousand or more prisoners. Other ships in Wallabout Bay were the Hunter and the Stromboli. The hospital ship Scorpion was moored off Paulus Hook; one of its guests was Philip Freneau, who wrote a dramatic poem about the horrors and hopelessness of life aboard a prison ship. At least thirteen different ships were used around New York City during the war. Others, of course, were used elsewhere. The Sandwich—although not a prison ship—was used to take political prisoners to St. Augustine from Charleston.

Mill Prison. Some American seamen captured at sea by the British during the American Revolution were held at Mill Prison in Plymouth, England. At the end ofthe war, there were more than one thousand seamen in captivity in Britain, primarily in Forton and Mill prisons. plan of mill prison (w/c and ink on paper) by american school, 19th century; peabody essex museum, salem, ma/ bridgeman art library
Other British prisoners. Other Americans were jailed at Halifax, and those taken on the high seas or in European waters saw the inside of such famous English prisons as Dartmoor, Old Mill Prison at Plymouth, Forton Prison at Portsmouth, and the Tower ofLondon. Continental army prisoners taken at Charleston on 12 May 1780 were imprisoned for thirteen months at nearby Haddrel's
Point, where they suffered great hardships. Some elected to join the British army or to serve in units formed to fight in the West Indies. But the majority turned down freedom at the cost of serving the British. ''The integrity of these suffering prisoners is hardly credible,'' Allen wrote. ''Many hundreds, I am confident, submitted to death, rather than enlist in British service.'' Allen used his tale of the British mistreatment of POWs to persuade the public that Americans had no kinship with their enemy. Allen and many others reported on the privation that drove men to eat rats and insects, wood and stone; in one notorious instance, a prisoner ate his own fingers. It is certainly the case that stories of the horrific prisons in which Americans were placed fed patriotic feelings.
Seamen, and even fishermen, taken by the British were given the choice of joining the Royal Navy or spend­ing the war in British jails. At the end of the war there were more than one thousand seamen in captivity in Britain, primarily in Forton and Mill prisons. Their treatment, being more routine, did not descend to the appalling levels of the prison ships.
 he sufferings of American captives in British hulks

A photograph of the 1908 unveiling ceremony in Fort Greene Park.

The squalid conditions aboard the HMS Jersey

The Prison Ship Jersey

The original Monument in Vinegar Hill.

An early postcard of the initial monument and crypt in Fort Greene Park.

A period postcard of the 1908 monument.


Prisoners of the Revolutionary War:

The Prison Ships

Article excerpted from:


he sufferings of American captives in British hulks were greater even than those in the prisons on land.
The prison-ships were intended for seamen taken on the ocean, yet some soldiers were confined in them. The first vessels used for the purpose were the transports in which cattle and other stores were brought by the British in 1776. These lay in Gravesend Bay, and there many of the prisoners taken in the battle near Brooklyn were confined until the British took possession of New York, when they were removed to prisons in the city, and the transports were anchored in the Hudson and East Rivers. In 1778 the hulks of decaying ships were moored in the Wallabout or Wallebocht, a sheltered bay on the Long Island shore, where the present Navy Yard is. There, in succession, the Whitby, Good Hope, Scorpion, Prince of Wales, Falmouth, Hunter, Stromboli, and half a dozen of less note were moored, and contained hundreds of American seamen captured on the high seas. The sufferings of these captives were intense, and at the close of 1779 they set fire to two of them, hoping to secure either liberty or death.
In 1780, the Jersey, originally a sixty-four gun ship (but, because unfit for service, was dismantled in 1776), was placed in the Wallabout, and used as a prison-ship till the close of the war, when she was left to decay on the spot where her victims had suffered. Her companions were the Stromboli, Hunter, and Scorpion, then used as hospitals. The latter was moored in the Hudson, toward Paulus’s Hook. The large number confined in the Jersey, sometimes more than a thousand at a time, and the terrible sufferings which occurred there, have made her name pre-eminent, and her history a synonym for prison-ships during the war. Her crew consisted of a captain, two mates, cook, steward, and a dozen sailors. She had also a guard of twelve old invalid marines, and about thirty soldiers, drafted from British and Hessian corps lying on Long Island. These were the jailers of the American captives, and were the instruments of great cruelty. Unwholesome food, foul air, filth, and despondency soon produced diseases of the most malignant nature. Dysentery, small-pox, and prison fever were the most prevalent, and, for want of good nurses and medical attendants, they died by scores on the Jersey and the hospital ships. The voice of human sympathy seldom reached the ears of the captives, and despair was the hand-maid of contagion. No systematic efforts for their relief were made, and, because of the contagious character of the diseases, no person ever visited the hulks to bestow a cheering smile or a word of consolation. All was funeral gloom, and hope never whispered its cheering promises there. When the crews of privateers were no longer considered prisoners of war by the British, the number of captives in confinement fearfully increased, and Congress had no adequate equivalents to exchange. Policy, always heartless, forbade the exchange of healthy British prisoners for emaciated Americans, and month after month the hapless captives suffered, and then died.
The name and character of each prisoner were registered when he first came on board. He was then placed in the hold, frequently with a thousand others, a large portion of them covered with filthy rags, often swarming with vermin. In messes of six they received their daily food every morning, which generally consisted of moldy biscuit filled with worms, damaged peas, condemned beef and pork, sour flour and meal, rancid butter, sometimes a little filthy suet, but never any vegetables, Their meat was boiled in a large copper kettle. Those who had a little money, and managed to avoid robbery by the British underlings, sometimes purchased bread, sugar, and other niceties, which an old woman used to bring alongside the hulk in a little boat. Every morning the prisoners brought up their bedding to be aired, and, after washing the decks, they were allowed to remain above till sunset, when they were ordered below with imprecations, and the savage cry, "Down, rebels, down!" The hatches were then closed, and in serried ranks they lay down to sleep, if possible, in the putrid air and stifling heat, amid the sighs of the acutely distressed and the groans of the dying. Each morning the harsh order came below, "Rebels, turn out your dead!" The dead were selected from the living, each sewed in his blanket, if he had one, and thus conveyed in a boat to the shore by his companions under a guard, and hastily buried.
Several times successful attempts at escape were made, and these drew the cords of captivity closer, until the name of "Hell" for the Jersey was a proper synonym. Various minute accounts of the sufferings of the prisoners have been published, the substance of which, with other interesting matter concerning the prisons and prison-ships at New York, may be found in Onderdonk’s Revolutionary Incidents, ii., 207-250 inclusive.
So shallow were the graves of the dead on the shores of the Wallabout, that while the ships were yet sending forth their victims, the action of the waves and the drifting of the loose sand often exposed the bones of those previously buried. Year after year this revolting exhibition might be seen, and yet no steps were taken to preserve the remains of the martyred patriots, until 1803 [Feb. 10, 1803.], when Samuel L. Mitchill presented a memorial to Congress, in behalf of the Tammany society of New York, soliciting a tomb for the Martyrs. This petition caused propositions for the erection of a great number of monuments, ordered by the Continental Congress to be reared in memory of various revolutionary worthies. The prayer of the petitioners was not granted, and no further legislative action was had. The Tammany Society resumed the consideration of the subject in the winter of 1807, appointed a committee, and on the thirteenth of April, 1808, the cornerstone of a vault for the remains was laid, with imposing ceremonies upon land presented for the purpose by John Jackson, Esq., situated on the southwestern verge of the Navy Yard, near the termination of Front Street, at Hudson Avenue, Brooklyn. Joseph D. Fay, Esq., delivered an eloquent address on the occasion. On the twenty-sixth of May, 1808, a grand funeral procession, formed of societies and citizens of New York and Brooklyn, marched to the finished vault, and there, in the presence of at least fifteen thousand persons, thirteen coffins, filled with remains taken from the shore of the Wallabout, were placed in it. Doctor Benjamin Dewitt delivered a pathetic funeral oration to the vast crowd, "while tears of sympathy bedimmed their eyes."
A small wooden building was erected over the vault, as an ante-chamber, intended to be temporary. In front of it was placed a wooden fence, with thirteen posts, and upon the bars were painted the names of the original thirteen states. The ante-chamber yet (1852) remains, and some of the posts are yet there, but the original design has never been accomplished. Forty-four years have elapsed, and yet no enduring monument has been raised to the memory of those martyrs for freedom. Efforts toward that end are now in progress. A committee has been appointed in Brooklyn, and it is to be hoped that a worthy memorial will be speedily reared upon the spot.

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